In our last post we appealed to John 17 to show that a properly ordered witness for Christ must avoid the two poles of (1) being both in the world and of the world, hoping the gospel will advance wordlessly through personal intimacy alone (Christ of culture) and (2) being neither in the world nor of the world, hoping the gospel will advance through remote belligerence alone (Christ against culture).
If the reader is familiar with H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, he will recognize two of Niebuhr’s five approaches, adapted here for my purposes. Niebuhr actually proposes three intermediate approaches, but I will select just one for further consideration: Christ and culture in paradox. (Note: I am using these categories somewhat differently than Niebuhr does, but I think they are helpful enough to be repurposed.)
In the paradox model, the Christian lives in two realms—as a citizen of the present, earthly/civic realm, and as a prospective citizen of heaven. In both these realms, Christ rules the believer’s activities, but in very different ways. In the earthly/civic realm, Christ rules indirectly through the dominion mandate by which everyman may, by submitting to God’s sovereign lordship over Creation, effectively rule over all that God has made as his vice-regents on earth. We do so by cultivating common/moral virtue, the sciences (Gen 1:28–31), and civic structures (Gen 9:6); by stewarding divinely granted “property” (whether material/physical, intellectual/ideological, ethical, etc.); and by obeying the second great commandment of loving neighbor as self (Matt 22:39). Specifically, this takes the form of being the very best possible citizens, workers, spouses, parents, students, and neighbors in the natural realm and under divinely imposed natural law. This is the duty of every person, and we should encourage/expect every person around us (regenerate and unregenerate alike), being fellow-image-bearers, to aspire to these selfsame goals. This is the duty of all image-bearers.
The believer’s goal in living this way is not only or even primarily to woo people into the second or heavenly/ecclesiastical realm (where Christ rules through shepherds in covenanted communities bound by the regulating principles of a comprehensive and inspired canon). Both Paul and Peter, however, suggest that by living in this way, even “without words,” we will routinely encounter opportunities for the Gospel (Titus 2:1–10; 1 Pet 3:1; etc.)—and we should be ever looking for these. By setting Christ apart as Lord we will invariably stimulate people to ask us the reason for the hope that lies within (1 Pet 3:15). And the Christian Gospel is our answer, delivered from the standpoint of a clear conscience and in a context of mutual respect earned by “good behavior” (v. 16).
So if a believer should find himself working, say, in a public school setting, the approach would not be unregulated Gospel declaration (which will get one fired) or withdrawal to engage in remote denunciations of that “wicked and irremediable public school system” (the Christ against culture approach). Nor should the believer simply seek to “blend in” with the sterile, non-theistic worldview that usually prevails in this setting—and, frankly, in almost every civic setting (the Christ of culture approach). Instead, the believer should view himself as an agent of common grace, moral virtue, and neighborliness, humbly and proactively being the best citizen, steward, worker, and ethical mentor that he possibly can be with God as his witness. The believer need not continually announce his faith, but neither will he be able to conceal it; indeed, in very short order, he will be asked to offer a reason for why he is the way that he is. And the Gospel will have its day.
As circumstances allow, this approach can also countenance a more assertive face—after all, if unbelievers can ask believers reasons for the hope that lies within, the believer can freely inquire about the reasons for the unbeliever’s hopelessness, too! And by doing this, we can gently push open doors to the hopeful introduction of the Christian Gospel.
In either case, though, a paradox/antithesis will emerge. It must emerge. Believers and unbelievers all live in the very same world, but they have radically different worldviews that cannot long remain a secret. And it is the Christian’s role to deliberately enter this common world determined not to “become like the fool” (Prov 26:4), but instead to invite and answer the fool’s inquiries (Prov 26:5) with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15) so as to introduce them to God.